Who says Democrats and Republicans are divided over how to fix California and its state budget? The recent rhetoric from right and left suggests we have a consensus on a way forward:
The people of California need to be punished more.
That is, the public needs to feel much more budget pain, firsthand, before they’re willing to make and accept the tough choices necessary for budget balance.
On the left, Treasurer Bill Lockyer leads the pain caucus, having suggested all manner of ways to inflict pain (from the psychic pain of offering provisional cuts in the event of the failure of Gov. Brown’s plan, to the targeted pain of cuts in Republican districts) so that the public makes the hard choices of cuts and tax extensions. On the right, Steven Greenhut is suggesting that Californians need to be hurt more by government cuts before they come to understand the price they’re paying for the power of public employee unions – and agree to back reductions in labor power.
The theory is that difficult decisions will come only through pain. But is that true?
Unfortunately, no. If only our budget could be fixed through painful cuts or through difficult tax increases. But it can’t.
While each party and ideological approach wants to exact pain, there’s no consensus on where that pain will lead. Each side thinks that through budget torture, the other will break first. Republicans will raise taxes. Public employee unions will slash their benefits.
But polling provides no data to suggest that public opinion will change because things get worse. And if recent history – the past couple years of cuts and tax increases – were any guide, applying more pain would make it harder to compromise, as people dig in. After you’ve suffered and sacrificed so much, it’s harder to surrender.
What’s more, applying budget pain doesn’t fix the process itself. California’s system, all by itself, continues to make the budget deficit worse, through incentives (from the two-thirds vote to the inflexible initiative to the fraud that is our legislative election system) that ramp up spending mandates while ratcheting down the revenue base.
Any budget pain must be explicitly connected to reforms of the system. Or will it only beget more pain. But seeing how pain is in vogue, let me make an offer.
If I agree to submit to waterboarding, can we get a constitutional convention?